“I was just reminiscing about my family,” says chef Niko Papadopoulos, the owner and operator of the Village Greek food truck. “I remember watching my mom in the kitchen and telling her, ‘All this work, and we eat it so quickly!’ And she said, ‘But Niko, you should see the look on your face when I make the food you love.’ Now I understand what she meant.”
Papadopoulos isn’t your typical food truck owner (if there is such a thing as “typical”), having lived and worked abroad all across
Europe, in South America, and even Japan. Just before moving to Rhode Island, he worked as a foreign language tour guide in Philadelphia. “I speak the languages of most places I’ve lived,” Papadopoulos explains, “Greek, Portuguese, Italian, French, Spanish.” Born in Montreal after the Greek Civil War, he grew up learning the recipes and flavors of his Greek heritage, but he is a true Renaissance man.
Wherever Papadopoulos lives, he always makes a point of visiting local markets and butcher shops, incorporating their ingredients into his Greek recipes. Sometimes, he improvises. “In Rhode Island, it’s hard to find loukaniko, Greek sausage, which is traditionally flavored with cardamom and orange peel. But I’ve learned to cook with Portuguese chouriço, which is flavored differently, with spices like paprika.”
It was actually overseas that the name for his mobile food enterprise came about. “‘Niko Papadopoulos’ was too long for people to remember, so they would just refer to me as ‘The Village Greek,’” he says. “It was more appealing than my nickname in Portugal,” he adds with a laugh: “careca,” meaning “bald guy.”
Papadopoulos and his wife have been serving authentic Mediterranean cuisine around the state for a few years now: at Roger Williams University, the Michael S. Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge in Providence, and Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth. The vineyards have been their weekend spot since the summer, continuing through November, where they’re accompanied by live music and, of course, wine.
“People are happily surprised to see Mediterranean food at the vineyard. They’re not expecting to find healthy options from a food truck. I tell them that in Greece, we call vegetarian and vegan food, food.”
Papadopoulos hopes people will be adventurous and try things they’ve never heard of, like the gigantes, giant beans baked in tomato sauce with fresh herbs, or imam bayildi, fresh eggplant stuffed with savory tomatoes, onions, and spices. But one of their most popular dishes is still the lamb gyro (pronounced yee-roh: “The only frozen thing on this truck is the look I give you if you pronounce gyro with a ‘J,’” Papadopoulos says). “I use real leg of lamb – and I don’t cook it until someone orders it. A lot of places will use a kind of meatloaf made of lamb and cow parts mixed with soy and wheat. People aren’t used to the taste of real lamb.”
Having been raised with the spirit of filotimo – a Greek word that has no English equivalent, but relates to a sense of honor, generosity, and hospitality – Niko began cooking for people when he lived abroad. “My number one reason was that I enjoy sharing my food and culture with friends. The number two reason,” he jokes, “is that when you cook, you don’t have to do the dishes.”
The best reward, however, is when someone takes a bite of his food and is transported. “When they tell me, ‘Niko, that’s exactly how I remembered it when I went to Greece,’” he says, “this is why I do it.”
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